Nip it in the bud

Pub date July 8, 2009
WriterRebecca Bowe

GREEN CITY Imagine if San Franciscans had the choice of sending the check for their monthly electricity fees to one of two places. Option A is a massive private utility company, serving up fossil fuel-fired and nuclear-powered energy, presided over by a CEO who got paid nearly $9 million last year. Option B is a publicly-owned program run by local government that offers a substantial percentage of green electricity from sources such as wind, solar, and tidal power. In San Francisco, which one would people be more likely to pick?

The intent behind community choice aggregation (CCA) programs, which in San Francisco is known as Clean Power SF, is to make Option B a reality. If successful, the program would signify not just a major advance on the green front, but a dent in Pacific Gas & Electric Co.’s longstanding monopoly in the Bay Area.

The program development is inching along under the direction of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo). Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, who chairs LAFCo, has poured a tremendous amount of time and energy into the city’s fledgling CCA program.

So when a proposed state ballot initiative surfaced that threatens to thwart statewide CCA programs before they launch, Mirkarimi came out swinging hard.

Titled the "Taxpayers Right to Vote Act," the proposed initiative would require that any effort to create or fund a CCA program be ratified by two-thirds of the voters. The measure would erect an almost impossibly high barrier to CCA development around the state, effectively snuffing out PG&E’s would-be competition and sullying local governments’ plans to embrace publicly-owned, cleaner energy alternatives.

Mirkarimi wasted no time in drafting a resolution against the measure and submitting it to the Board of Supervisors, telling his colleagues that the utility’s proposal undermines years of effort "to allow municipalities to go ahead and chart their own energy destiny so they don’t have to be on the syringe of fossil fuel-driven corporations like PG&E."

He also took issue with the name of the proposal, calling it deceptive and misleading. "The point is that we should not be manipulated by measures such as this, where voters would be required to have a two-thirds vote on something the state Legislature has already allowed us to pursue," Mirkarimi said. "It’s our own right, and corporate special interests shouldn’t dictate otherwise." The state law that grants local governments the right to pursue community choice aggregation, which was sponsored by then-Sen. Carole Migden, specifically prohibits actions that impede the progress of a CCA.

PG&E’s name does not appear anywhere on the ballot-initiative proposal, but a spokesperson for the initiative confirmed that the utility had paid the submission fee. The law firm listed as a contact for the proposal, meanwhile, has been enlisted by PG&E before. And Robert Lee Pence, who is named as the proponent of the initiative, has teamed up with PG&E ally Townsend, Raimundo, Besler and Usher on campaign measures in the past. That Sacramento-based political consulting firm describes its strategic consulting services online with this brazen slogan: "Moving opinions is what we do best."

PG&E did not return calls for comment.

At the June 30 Board of Supervisors meeting, supervisors approved Mirkarimi’s resolution on a 10 to 1 vote, with Sup. Michela Alioto-Pier voting no. And while a resolution does little more than create a formal record of the board’s position on a matter, Mirkarimi seemed to suggest that it was only the start of a battle mounting against this proposal. "Don’t be surprised [if] a number of municipalities align themselves in potential litigation against this," he said.

Sup. David Campos, an attorney who also sits on LAFCo, hinted that the city could enter into litigation on the issue. "I hope the city is carefully looking at legal issues that might be raised by the actions of PG&E," he noted at the June 30 Board meeting. "I think that there are legal protections we need to avail ourselves of, and I hope the City Attorney’s Office, working with the Board of Supervisors, can make sure that the city takes all steps that it needs to take to protect its legal rights."

Campos later told the Guardian that he had not yet spoken with the City Attorney’s Office about it.

When asked about pursuing legal action, the City Attorney’s Office would only say that "we’re aware of it, and we’re evaluating what we will be doing," according to spokesperson Jack Song.

Barbara Hale, general manager for power at the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, told the Guardian, "We have certainly been talking with other cities about the initiative." But Hale added that the agency hadn’t taken a formal position yet because it is so early in the process. "It hasn’t actually been placed on any ballots yet."

Since the initiative was submitted, public power activists across the state have taken notice. Jeff Shields, general manager of the South San Joaquin Irrigation District, has gone toe-to-toe with PG&E on public power issues before. One of the most memorable battles occurred when a political consulting firm hired by PG&E hacked into SSJID’s computers in the midst of a tug-of-war over control of the area’s electricity infrastructure — only to get caught by the FBI and publicly denounced by PG&E. "Obfuscation is PG&E’s middle name," Shields says. "I know there are lots of people looking at this initiative, but I don’t know that there’s a specific organizational effort against it at this time."

Jerry Jordan, executive director of the Sacramento-based California Municipal Utilities Association — a statewide organization representing 70 public utilities — told the Guardian that CMUA would oppose the initiative. However, "we may wait until it qualifies," Jordan said. The initiative is still in its earliest stages, and the attorney general has yet to certify it as legal to the secretary of state.

Meanwhile, efforts to move forward with the CCA model in other regions are floundering in these tough fiscal times. The San Joaquin Valley Power Authority voted June 25 to temporarily suspend its CCA, an effort in the works for years that had a goal of offering electricity to customers at lower and more stable rates.

Spokeswoman Cristel Tufenkjian said the greatest obstacle was a contract with CitiGroup’s energy branch that was marred by tight credit markets. "When things started to go south with the markets, CitiGroup said it could not execute that contract," Tufenkjian explained. She also added, "We are opposed to the initiative."

The SJVPA bid to create a CCA was also hindered by opposition from PG&E. "For the last few years, PG&E has continually placed roadblocks in front of our program in an attempt to stop us from implementing community choice and ultimately not providing residents and businesses the opportunity to have a choice about who will provide them electrical energy," said Ron Manfredi, city manager of Kerman and chair of the San Joaquin Valley Power Authority.

The Board of Supervisors’ resolution against the ballot initiative condemns such roadblocks and vows to push through this one. "PG&E has a history of acting to maintain its monopoly in its service region, including opposing public power initiatives at the ballot and lobbying officials of California cities [and] counties against community choice aggregation in apparent violation of the provisions [of state law]," the text of the resolution reads.

As this ballot initiative moves through the approval process, it’s clear that a battle is going to heat up very quickly. "I think we have to fight this as hard as we can," Campos told us. "PG&E has been unsuccessful in killing [CCA] here in San Francisco, but they have certainly delayed it. Now they’re trying to make sure it doesn’t happen anywhere else."